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Does an empty nest spell the end of your marriage?

Posted Aug 09 2011 8:48am

That was the question we asked Dr. Jacqueline Del Rosario, America's Marriage Doctor, and Dr. Terri Orbuch, The Love Doctor.  Here are their answers:

Love Doctor Dr. Terri Orbuch answers the question: Does an empty nest spell the end of your marriage?

Even though we love our kids, many studies have found that marital happiness actually increases after the kids leave home. For many couples, marriage happiness continues to rise steadily during the empty nest years and reaches an all-time high at 35 years of marriage.

Despite these hopeful findings, it's very common for spouses to express anxiety before their children move out. The questions I typically hear from my therapy patients, TV and radio fans, and online readers who are about to enter the empty nest years are: Do we still have things to talk about? Do we have enough in common? Will we get sick of each other's company? Do I even still like him/her?

The big message I tell them is this: It doesn't take a lot of hard work to renew your marital bond and to rekindle the kind of lighthearted joy and excitement you felt early in your marriage. In fact, the "newness" of being alone together again helps to jump start these feelings. My research has shown that when partners make a few positive changes in their behaviors and habits, they can greatly increase their marital happiness over the next many years.

Here are five marriage-rekindling strategies that will absolutely help you and your spouse enjoy years of happiness together once you are empty-nesters:

Start chatting daily--for 10 minutes.
When was the last time you and your partner talked about something other than the kids, the house, money or your work? Practice talking to your partner for 10 minutes a day, every day, about anything other than those four topics. Meals are good opportunities to practice the 10-Minute Rule. So is right before bed. My research found that couples who practice the 10-Minute Rule daily feel closer and happier over time.

Psyche yourselves up.
As in any new endeavor, going in with a positive attitude and some concrete goals leads to success. Sit down with your spouse and discuss all the benefits of having the house to yourselves and what you are each looking forward to. More free time? Freedom to travel? Eating out more? Eating differently? Less mess? Skinny dipping in your pool? Doing this simple activity will get the two of you in alignment and jazzed up about your new life.

Share a new activity.
Engaging in a new experience benefits your marriage by helping to rekindle the same feeling of newness you experienced as dating singles, when every activity was a freshly shared experience. Doing something novel together--such as taking tennis lessons, eating at a new restaurant, or visiting a local tourist attraction--is also a way to inject fun into the marriage. My research has found that when couples characterize their relationship as frequently fun, they are likely to be happy over the long term.

Knock your partner off balance.
One of the best ways to bring more passion into your marriage and get out of a relationship rut is to shake up your normal routine. For example, if the wife goes grocery shopping at the end of the day, maybe the husband offers to go with her. Or if he typically falls asleep in front of the TV at night, maybe the wife challenges him to a game of Scrabble instead. Even small changes and surprises keep relationships feeling fresh and exciting.

Talk about sex.
It's important for long-married couples to talk about their sex lives together. This can be helpful as well as physiologically arousing to both partners. Discuss what makes your sex life exciting, your sexual fantasies, or what you desire from each other. A good way to start this conversation is to remember back when you first had sex and remember what turned you on then. Focus on the positive and what would be erotic to each of you.

As you can see, these are not complicated, difficult, or major activities. Nevertheless, each one addresses a different aspect of your relationship in a positive way. Bringing these new behaviors into your mature marriage will guarantee that you and your long-time spouse will enjoy many more years of marital happiness through the empty nest years. Don't be surprised if you begin to feel more content and connected to your spouse than you've ever felt before--it happens all the time.

Terri L. Orbuch: 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great   Terri L. Orbuch: 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great

Dr. Jacqueline Del Rosario Here is Dr. Del Rosario's answer to the question: Does an empty nest spell end of your marriage? 

Absolutely not!  But, whether your marriage can weather this transition is entirely dependent on the level of preparation and commitment that you and your partner are willing put in. 

When a couple starts having children, it’s easy for their entire relationship to focus on the needs of the next generation. Parents’ lives revolve around feeding, changing and bathing infants followed by baby proofing the house and potty training. For the next few years, couples have to worry about elementary school, science projects and a strew of ever-changing extracurricular activities. This continues with changing scenarios as children grow into puberty and then young adults going off to college. This tunnel vision allows partners not to have to communicate with each other about the relationship, and the marriage lasts almost by default. In other words, the kids become the point of commonality rather than one another. 

I remember watching the movie "Failure to Launch" starring Matthew McConaughey who played Trip, a 35-year-old late bloomer still living in his parents’ house, clinging to their sides. However, when Trip finally moved out, it sent his parents into a state of shock since they were so used to the family unit revolving around him, their only child. On one end of the spectrum was the stir-crazy father who immediately did everything he always wanted to do including turning Trip’s old bedroom into his new “naked fish tank” room. Yes, you guessed it – a room where he could walk around naked and admire his new fish tank. On the other end was his mother who was worried that her husband would have to get to know her again in the context of a woman, as opposed to a mother. What scared her even more was the thought of her husband not liking the person she had become over the years they spent growing apart just focusing on their son. 

It’s important for couples to be aware of the “All-About-the-Kids” syndrome, so that they can try to avoid it. They need to remember that their relationship requires attention and nurturing too. Individuals are constantly evolving and changing over time, so it’s imperative that couples stay in tune, so that they can grow alongside each other. 

In fact, my husband and I are currently experiencing it. We have two boys – the eldest went off to college last year, and we’re in the process of sending the second one off this year. And while we’ve grown stronger over the last 22 years of marriage, we have some adjustments to make. I’ve always said that marriages go through seasons, and the empty nest period will take work. 

So when the empty nest approaches your door here are a few things to keep in mind. A mistake that couples often make is trying to recreate where they were before the children came along. You and your mate are two completely different people than when you first fell in love with each other. Couples need to establish how they will recommit to each other during this new phase. If you assume that your lives will just return to what it was prior to having children, you will be thoroughly disillusioned and disappointed…it’s been almost two decades! Often, your perspectives and goals have changed, not to mention your physical features – your spouse could have a different body, different hair or no hair at all! Remember that while love is a feeling, marriage is a commitment, and you must be ready to fall in love all over again. 

Secondly, couples shouldn’t wait until the “chicks” are gone to start dismantling the “nest.” During the high school years, the kids are able to drive themselves and they spend more time with their friends out of the house, so it’s a great time for you and your mate to begin redefining the relationship and thinking about the new era to come. 

Love Couples must start to purposely craft this new time by relinquishing the mundane and ordinary. Repurpose or come up with new ways to be with each other. I’m not talking about risky escapades or mid-life crisis moves. I’m referring to creative ways to get to know each other in this new setting. Ask yourselves, “What can we do that’s about us?” This can be a very hard question to answer since both of you are so used to asking what you can do for the kids. 

Just the other day, my husband and I decided to run errands together. We ended up eating lunch at a new restaurant and even caught an impromptu movie before the night ended. It was refreshing just following our own whims instead of our kids’ schedules, but I have to admit that it was an unfamiliar feeling. 

In many cases, that adventurer in you who used to crave spontaneity went into hibernation. Instead, you and your partner focused your attention and resources on building that nest for your children, making it as comfortable as possible. And, over the course of time, you got used to the dimensions of it without realizing that there’s a whole another word out there. Just like your kids, it’s time for you and your partner to venture outside that nest. 

Remember, it may feel foreign, but you can't fear the unfamiliar. It’s unchartered territory, that you must embrace by recognizing that it’s a new beginning that holds so much promise and possibility. It’s the next chapter in your lives, and if you make sure to turn the page together, you can make it EXACTLY what you want it to be.

“America’s Marriage Doctor” Jacqueline Del Rosario, Ed.D. is President and CEO of Recapturing the Vision International, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy marriages and family strengthening.  Also a published author, speaker and nationally regarded media personality, Dr. Del Rosario has been a certified pre and post-marital counselor for more than 20 years.  Her cutting-edge series, Marriage Solutions and The Marital Constitution™, help couples successfully work through problems and find healthy solutions. She may be reached online at www.doctordelrosario.com .

JACQUELINE DEL ROSARIO: Capturing the Vision

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